PRINT January 2006

International News

Nicholaus Schafhausen

GERMAN-BORN CURATOR Nicolaus Schafhausen has been newly appointed as director of Witte de With in Rotterdam, replacing interim director Hans Maarten van den Brink and taking a position held by Catherine David from 2002 to 2004. Until recently, Schafhausen headed the Frankfurter Kunstverein, where he instigated a focused program of exhibitions, lectures, and publications that turned the Kunstverein into one of Europe’s most interesting art spaces. Among his achievements in Frankfurt were shows by Liam Gillick (1999), Gerard Byrne (2003), and Cerith Wyn Evans (2004), as well as exhibitions for which the habitual term “theme show” seems inadequate: “New Heimat” (2001–2002) approached questions of migration and identity through a combination of con- temporary art and “ethnographic” artifacts; “Adorno” (2003–2004) investigated the contemporary relevance of Theodor Adorno’s modernist aesthetics, and the recent “Populism” exhibition—cocurated with Lars Bang Larsen and Cristina Ricupero—saw artists and theorists (perhaps too many of them) responding to recent populist tendencies. Such exhibitions are questioning essays rather than the usual collections of hip work assembled under hastily concocted monikers. Both the group shows and the solo exhibitions were usually accompanied by small books rather than traditional catalogues. Published by Lukas & Sternberg, these publications are much more than obligatory accompaniments; they are integral parts of the projects in question.

Schafhausen’s preference for working with small institutions stands in marked contrast to the practices of today’s free-roaming curators; ever on the lookout for new contexts and picturesque sites, they have contributed to an event culture that increasingly frustrates meaningful artistic and critical production. From Rotterdam, Schafhausen will also continue to direct the European Kunsthalle initiative in Cologne, a research project investigating the possibilities and problems of Kunsthalle-type spaces in contemporary urban culture, created in response to the closing of the old Kunsthalle in Cologne and the general erosion of the city’s art scene. Compared to this provisional think tank, Witte de With seems like a secure and established institution; but the situation Schafhausen faces in Rotterdam, and in the Netherlands as a whole, is nonetheless difficult. David’s program at Witte de With was greeted with a mixture of disinterest and hostility bordering on xenophobia (yikes, a Frenchwoman who uses difficult words!), and she left the Netherlands denouncing the country’s populist and anti-intellectual climate. The fault was hardly all on one side, however. It is true that the reception of David’s activities demonstrated the near-total absence of serious discourse in Holland, but her departure might also be reasonably linked to her communication skills, or lack thereof, and to her distant attitude toward the town and country in which she worked.

In truth, David and the cultural and political context in which she had to operate were a mismatch from the start, and following her directorate was like watching a traffic accident in slow motion. Although she created a cogent program—highlights included shows by David Goldblatt (2003), Ulrike Ottinger, and Alison and Peter Smithson (both 2004), as well as the series “Contemporary Arab Representations” (2002–2003), consisting of ambitious but poorly installed shows focusing on specific cities—there were fewer exhibitions than in the past. David regarded Witte de With as a center for artistic production and critical reflection, not necessarily as an exhibition space. But Witte de With’s cultural-political legitimization, and consequently its funding, are crucially dependent on its shows—the institution’s most visible side. In the end, David’s credit was virtually zero; when withdrawal of municipal funding seemed imminent, the novelist Van den Brink was appointed interim director. While his intimate knowledge of the Dutch cultural bureaucracy was crucial during this transitional period, it was clear from the beginning that his directorate would be an interregnum ending with the appointment of a new director steeped in contemporary art. Like David, Schafhausen also places great value on creating a strong theoretical foundation and uses art institutions to create a space for critique; but he has demonstrated a far greater awareness that support for such critical institutions is fragile and must constantly be rekindled through a variety of activities, including the mounting of convincing exhibitions.

Sven Lütticken is an art historian and critic based in Amsterdam.